Sunday, 19 November 2006

Via Pulchritudionis

A little while back there was a conference at the Apostolic See about the place of the aesthetic in theology and conversion: the so-called via pulchritudionis or 'Way of Beauty'. To my disgrace, I followed the meeting with less attention than it deserved. I consider this an important question in this day and age, since our generation seems to have become singularly aesthetically sensitive. Especially the spiritually minded youth have started to discern a connection between beauty and truth. But how deep is the connection truly? For we cannot doubt that beauty does not necessarily equate truth, and likewise some truths come with no aesthetic aura.

But for all the danger inherent in setting up beauty as a measure of truth, there is a certain admirable intent in it all. And here I can speak only of myself. To a very great extent my conversion to the Holy Catholic Faith was sped along by an intuitive spirirtuality nourished by the beauty in the works of Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Loreena McKennitt, Adiemus, and in the pagan mythologies. Through the beauty that shone in these artifacts, I discerned the solidity of truth, but yet it eluded me. It nevertheless kept the search going, since I could not believe that God would grant beauty to the pagans and to literature, but withhold it from His Body, the Church.

In the end, and by no means merely by a vague aestheticism, but also concretely by means of Scriptural study and history, I had to radically revise my ecclesiology. So I came to profess the Faith, and seek to be numbered in the One, Holy, Catholic & Apostolic Church.

And the via pulchritudionis? It remains, and I have found its heart in the Church. This might sound surprising to those who think theology a barren and academic discipline, but it is my belief and experience. The disputes about the Trinity of the first four centuries of the Church's incarnation are maddeningly scholarly to some, but to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, beauty flashes like fire in the truth that the Absolute, the Wholly Other, is One and Three, made flesh in the person of Jesus the Christ, and continued among us by the working of the Holy Spirit. All beauty points to Thrice-Holy Trinity, and I take delight in noting people's reactions when I tell them I started the process of becoming Catholic the first time I beheld the High-Elves in Middle-Earth, and the white mountains of the Blessed Realm in the Uttermost West.
Let me conclude these thoughts with the brilliant poem Mythopoeia by JRR Tolkien, who no doubt assists all along the via pulchritudionis from his celestial seat.


To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless
even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

You look at trees and label them just so
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At the bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’erwritten without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frim, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movement of the seas, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.

Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen –
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh,
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience,
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
and looking backwards they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
and draws some wisdom from the only Wise;
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost, nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.
his world-dominion by creative act,
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ‘twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair, and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise – for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that Evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom,
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found in recorded time.
It is not they who have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced.)

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends –
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little make has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking upon the Blessed Land ‘twill see
that all is as it is, yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

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